Piloting Innovation

By Jennifer Schramm Feb 1, 2012
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Business leaders know that they have to keep innovating to grow their organizations. To that end, strategic leaders, including HR professionals, need to know how to pilot initiatives.

Swiss academics and business strategy experts Rhoda Davidson and Bettina Büchel have uncovered how multinational companies maximize the outcomes of pilot initiatives. Davidson and Büchel wrote about their research in the fall 2011 issue of the MIT Sloan Management Review. One finding: Although pilot initiatives are generally started in a spirit of experimentation and with a certain level of tolerance for failure, the opposite often can be true in practice.

A failed pilot can lead to further failure down the road because people view the initiative negatively or because employees do not fully understand and learn from the pilot. For example, a multinational pilot initiative that fails to generate the expected outcomes in one market may be outright rejected by leaders in other markets. Even if employees use the lessons learned from an unsuccessful pilot to improve the initiative, it may be tainted with the brush of failure and therefore ineffectively and unenthusiastically managed in its wider rollout.

This implies that the stakes are often higher for pilots than we realize—thereby making it that much more important to carefully plan them. Davidson and Büchel found three factors to be most critical in improving the outcome:

  • Choose the right location for a pilot.
  • Set clear objectives.
  • Provide clear and effective communications to stakeholders at every stage of the process.

Choosing the right location for a pilot study or initiative is fraught with potential pitfalls, but it is the most important step. The research shows that if the location is credible—that is, if it has the "characteristics, skills and business coverage to legitimize the strategic initiative"—chances are good that it can be a decent proxy for other locations and a smart choice for a pilot site. Well-executed pilots also must be replicable and feasible across the organization.

HR professionals can help business leaders more accurately assess each of these characteristics of piloting. In a multinational organization, for example, both the global HR function and local HR teams can help the organization's leaders choose the best pilot sites by identifying characteristics—such as local employment laws, culture, or management styles and practices—that could hinder or enhance a location's suitability as a pilot site.

HR professionals can keep these factors in mind when planning their own pilot initiatives. If, for example, HR professionals are using a pilot initiative to encourage managers to adopt more-flexible work policies, they can put these lessons into practice by first creating and communicating a clear set of basic objectives, making sure the pilot group or department for the initiative has credibility within the organization and ensuring that the initiative can reasonably be replicated in other parts of the organization once the pilot concludes.

Building this winning template is what piloting—and innovation—is all about.

The author is manager of the Workplace Trends and Forecasting program at SHRM.

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